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Fiorello LaGuardia chose not to wear his Jewish heritage on his sleeve. In fact, he allowed the public to identify him as Italian, not Jewish, even under the most tempting of political circumstances. When issues of Jewish interest came up in New York or national politics, however, the “Little Flower” was an ardent advocate for Jewish rights. As mayor of New York, he was one of Hitler’s most outspoken opponents.
LaGuardia was born in Greenwich Village in 1882 to Achille Luigi Carlo LaGuardia, a Catholic, and Irene Luzzato Coen, who had been raised in an observant Jewish home in Trieste. In 1880, the couple emigrated to the United States. After their third child was born, Achille joined the U.S. Army and was stationed at remote outposts in South Dakota and Arizona. In 1898, Achille became gravely ill from eating “embalmed” rations supplied to the Army and died four years later. When his son Fiorello was elected to Congress in 1922, the first bill he introduced called for the death penalty for “scavengers” who supplied tainted food to the military. The bill did not pass, but LaGuardia never lost his progressive disgust for government corruption or the ability of “the interests” to escape justice.
A superb linguist, in 1900 the eighteen-year-old Fiorello took his first government post in the American consular corps in Budapest. In 1906, advised that his Jewish roots and lack of a Harvard degree would stunt his prospects in America’s “white shoe” diplomatic service, LaGuardia resigned and returned to New York. He worked for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children and as a translator for the U.S. Immigration Service while attending New York University Law School. On graduation, he specialized in protecting immigrant workers in the garment industry. Although he never earned much, LaGuardia won numerous friends and a great reputation among the Lower East Side’s immigrant Jewish garment workers and peddlers by representing them in court, free of charge.
In 1916, running as a Republican, LaGuardia challenged the incumbent Congressman from the Lower East Side, a Tammany-backed saloonkeeper named Farley. Speaking to crowds in Yiddish, Italian, and Serbo-Croatian, LaGuardia defeated Farley by a narrow margin, becoming the first Italian-American elected to Congress. In 1922, Tammany ran a Jewish candidate against LaGuardia and circulated a flyer calling LaGuardia “a pronounced anti-Semite and Jew-hater.” Advised that he should publicly proclaim his Jewish roots on his mother’s side, LaGuardia rejected the tactic as “self-serving.” Instead, he challenged his opponent to debate him in Yiddish–an offer his opponent could not accept. LaGuardia won re-election.
Defeated for re-election in the Roosevelt landslide of 1932, LaGuardia successfully ran for mayor of the New York City in 1933, and became an implacable foe of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Before taking office, LaGuardia called Hitler a “perverted maniac.” In a public address in 1934, LaGuardia warned, “Part of [Hitler’s] program is the complete annihilation of the Jews in Germany.” In 1937, speaking before the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress, LaGuardia called for the creation of a special pavilion at the upcoming New York World’s Fair: “a chamber of horrors” for “that brown-shirted fanatic.”
In response, the government-controlled press in Germany called LaGuardia a “Dirty Talmud Jew,” a “shameless Jew lout” and “a whoremonger.” When the German ambassador protested to U. S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull about LaGuardia’s remarks, Hull explained to the ambassador that, personally, he “very earnestly deprecate[d] the utterances which have thus given offense to the German government.” Hull had to explain, however, that in America the mayor of New York was free to speak his mind. Hull complained privately to President Roosevelt that LaGuardia was poisoning German-American relations but Roosevelt asked Hull, “What would you say if I should say that I agreed completely with LaGuardia?” Several months later, LaGuardia visited Roosevelt and recorded the following scene:
The president smiled as I entered his office. Then he extended his right arm and said, “Heil, Fiorello!” I snapped to attention, extended my right arm and replied, “Heil, Franklin!” And that’s all that was ever said about it.
In May of 1937, news broke of a scandal in six Brooklyn public high schools in which bootleg contraceptives were being sold to students. The German press immediately blamed “the Jew LaGuardia” for this episode of “hair-raising immorality.” LaGuardia fired back he had no response to the charge: the only city official competent to deal with the German press allegations was the deputy sanitation commissioner in charge of sewage disposal!
In 1938, after the division of Czechoslovakia and Kristallnacht, LaGuardia stepped up his attacks on the Hitler regime. At a rally of 20,000 anti-Fascists in Madison Square Garden, LaGuardia proclaimed himself unable to “adequately to describe the brutality of [Hitler] and his government” and called the Nazi regime a great threat to world peace. Historians David and Jackie Esposito have written, “In the face of large scale indifference to human rights violations abroad and growing isolationism at home . . . LaGuardia reasserted a Progressive?s faith in the rule of reason and the power of enlightened public opinion to face up to the Nazis and confront Hitler.” When the U.S. entered the war in 1941, LaGuardia?s principled position was vindicated.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.